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‘This isn’t staged footage’ Committee Against Torture chairman Igor Kalyapin answers Meduza’s questions about the rampant abuse in Russian prisons
In early October, the human rights group Gulagu.net (Not to the Gulag) released several video clips that show incidents of physical and sexual abuse in Russian prisons. According to the Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin, these videos were just a fraction of a 40-gigabyte “archive” leaked to human rights activists by a former inmate (apparently the group has received more videos since then). Though prisoners themselves are sometimes involved in committing these abuses, Osechkin believes that this is part of a single, centralized system created with the knowledge of Russia’s prison authority (the Federal Penitentiary Service or FSIN). For expert insight into what’s fueling the rampant abuse in Russia’s prison system, Meduza turned to Igor Kalyapin, the chairman of the Committee Against Torture.
Why are people tortured in Russian prisons?
There are answers to this question on various levels. The first level is the philosophical and pedagogical aspect — some people believe that inflicting pain is the most effective form of “communication.” The second is the legal aspect. Prison officials are people who, upon dawning a uniform and shoulder straps, make a commitment to act only in accordance with the law. At work, they are given certain tools for handling any situation that may arise in places of detention. The inmates might be rude to the prison staff, appear slovenly, attempt to escape, or organize a criminal gang. And there’s a legal response provided for each of these negative occurrences — ranging from reprimands and punishment cells, to stricter conditions of detention. The use of physical force is only permissible for overcoming physical resistance — or in situations when a person poses a threat to themself or others.
But there’s a cognitive dissonance among prison staff. For example, if an inmate insults a prison guard, by law the guard is supposed to declare a reprimand, write a report, take a statement, and only then can he give the inmate five days in a punishment cell. But in this situation, the prison guard feels insulted. At that moment, he doesn’t feel like an employee at his job. He doesn’t see the inmate as someone in his care. The prison guard feels like a neighborhood boy who’s been personally humiliated. And by this immature reasoning, he has to punch the inmate in the face. Besides, the prison guard doesn’t believe that putting the inmate in a punishment cell will help, he thinks you need to do things differently.
The prison guard knows it’s illegal for him to punch the inmate in the face or hit him with a truncheon. Any form of torture is prohibited in prisons by law — it’s considered gross misconduct. But, drawing on his personal experience and the experiences of his colleagues, he comes to the conclusion that there won’t be any repercussions. There are thousands of cases where the ban on torture was violated, and no one was ever punished. Therefore, the law almost never works. Therefore, it’s violated constantly and there’s practically no legal factor: “It’s prohibited, but in actual fact you can.”
Can prison staff do anything to change this situation? Can they refuse to torture inmates?
There are people who can. And you find them from time to time. But the question is, how many such people are there? What’s the ratio compared to the number of people who think they have to knock out an inmate’s teeth?
Psychologists often talk about the kind of conformity people are willing to accept when they’re part of a group. For example, if there’s a group of 15 prison guards on duty and 14 of them think a brash prisoner deserves to be tasered, the fifteenth guard may know that this is illegal, but taking up this stance will only anger the others. His 14 senior colleagues will say to him, “You’re a sucker, you don’t understand a thing. There’s no other way to make these prisoners understand.” How can this one person correct the behavior of a well-established team?
How do video leaks like this one happen? What do they achieve?
Sometimes these materials can be purchased, or sometimes someone passes them along for ideological reasons. But unfortunately, the legality of how these videos were obtained can influence how they are viewed.
I hope there are still records in the server archives where all this information should have been stored. As far as I know, the leadership of the FSIN (Federal Penitentiary Service) was warned a day before the publication of these materials that there were such recordings and that they needed to be seized immediately, in order to be handed over to the investigation. Because they were going to be released to the general public and the people who appeared in them would really want to destroy the videos.
I hope that the authenticity of these recordings will be legally proven and they will appear as official evidence in criminal cases. Personally, I have no doubts about their authenticity. This isn’t a dramatization or staged footage.
There have been similar cases already. For example, the leaked video from the prison colony in Yaroslavl in 2018. Certain individuals who had access to the recordings copied them and gave them to the Public Verdict Foundation and Novaya Gazeta. This was how the investigation began.
As practice shows, this is the most effective start to an investigation. Though perhaps this isn’t very correct according to the law. By law, such recordings must be brought before the Attorney General’s Office and the Investigative Committee, and a statement must be written up. But there’s a big risk that if you take videos evidencing torture to the Investigative Committee all of them will be lost the next day — and that you yourself will not return home. But when everything is made public, there’s no point in destroying anything.
Can this system be changed?
Right now the regulations and prohibitions don’t work, because hardly anyone is punished for torture. If the story ended with people being punished, this would create a space for change. Because the law works well when breaking it is always punished, and not in one case out of one thousand.
But even this is better than when no one is punished at all. It creates risks for the people who do this kind of thing. Each time someone is punished and held accountable for torture it sends a palpable signal. People think twice if they might end up behind bars.
Summary by Eilish Hart
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